Mental Retooling

Grizzled veteran embraces free-to-play concept.

In my last post, You Lost Me at ‘Buy’, I was ranting about a scenario that really had me down-heartened about the direction of the game (and, in particular, mobile game) industry.  However, not being one to wallow, I already had a plan in motion (and development) to adapt to the changing landscape of the business I chose (back in the 80s) to be part of.

In the two months since that post, I have been working on Demolish! Pairs FTP, a free-to-play version of our latest iOS release.

In truth, the process was already underway when I made that blog post, but a comment from Joel Davis, along with an intense read of the book he recommended, Free-to-Play: Making Money from Games You Give Away, by Will Luton, caused me to revisit the (free-to-play) design from the top, with a different attitude and approach.

I ended up with a separate design document just for the free-to-play features that was longer than the design document for the game itself.  I did not change anything about the actual gameplay, deciding against banner advertisements that would adversely affect the experience, and determined not to allow “pay to win” in any sense.  However, I did incorporate several features into the product (interface) to allow for free-to-play, including certain (temporary) game restrictions and advertising, as well as means of playing for “free” forever (wherever time is a valueless commodity).

To be clear, I “embrace” free-to-play approximately the same way as I might embrace a great aunt who I have never met, and may never see again.  Of course, if it turns out that this great aunt happens to want to enhance my income substantially, then the least I could do would be to visit more often and get to know her, and my embrace may grow sincere.  It would be the polite thing to do. :)

In the world outside that metaphor, the new version is designed to allow, and encourage, players to give us money for the fun product we have created.  However, it does not force anybody to part with money and, actually, players may not be significantly restricted until they get decent at the game.  The other major drive and purpose of the free-to-play version is to get information about the market, relative to the paid version.  Although the first/paid version of Demolish! Pairs did make some money, that income stream deteriorated to the point that the possibility of cannibalizing sales with a “free” version is no longer a serious risk.  (A game needs to make a meaningful contribution to keeping our company in business, or it may as well be free anyway.)

So, I created this new free-to-play edition, Demolish! Pairs FTP, over the last couple of months (in addition to a whole new round of iOS solitaire game updates for Goodsol Development).  The actual development time for just the FTP (which does not stand for what you think it stands for) version was 80% of the time it took to build the original iOS (paid) version of the game from the prototype.  The game has been submitted to the App Store, so now we are just waiting for approval (I hope), after which we will see how the initial sales stack up against the initial sales of the paid version.

The free-to-play edition should have a much longer tail than the paid version, so when (<optimism>) this new version matches or exceeds the income of the paid version over the critical first 3 days, and then grows instead of plummeting, then my attitude will truly be changed (</optimism>).  I have a very specific target in mind for iOS to be considered a successful platform for us, and I am anxious to see whether we make that goal.

I plan to write more about the free-to-play features and results once there are actual results to consider.  In the meantime, you can buy (the original version of) Demolish! Pairs in the App Store, with no ads nor restrictive baggage.

Note: If we get at least 350 purchases of Demolish! Pairs 1.0 before the end of this month [October], Digital Gamecraft will donate $1000 to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, plus 50% of all net proceeds for sales beyond 350 (before November 1).

You Lost Me at ‘Buy’

Game development can really suck sometimes.

Let me set the (completely true) scene for you.  My wife and I are at an informal dinner with several other people, none of whom we had ever met before, except for my cousin (the only reason we were there).  At some point, while waiting for our meals, he started talking about our game, Demolish! Pairs, and when somebody wondered about it, he pulled out his iPhone and started demonstrating it.  One of his acquaintances showed interest in the game, so he told her, “You can buy it on the App Store.”  Then, to me, he asked, “How much is it, again?

She did not even wait for my reply before saying to him, “You lost me at ‘buy’.:(

Although I was disappointed and slightly shocked at the direct rejection of Demolish! Pairs (or any game) on the basis of it not being free, it was not until days later until I realized exactly how much it was really bothering me.  This is truly a depressing sentiment for somebody who makes a living developing games.  I hope this rant exorcises that particular demon from my thoughts.

Point 1:  Games should NOT be free.  Worthwhile people are willing to pay for their games explicitly, rather than requiring coercive “free-to-play” schemes.

Shortly thereafter, we heard the common refrain about none of them really playing games anyway, followed again by the increasingly frequent mention that, ‘what I do play is this app called Candy Crush.’  Then, pretty much everybody admitted that they all play that game, and these “not real gamers” started discussing the game, including specifics of their approaches to winning and getting 3 stars on every level!

Point 2:  You DO play games; every interesting person does.  Playing a casual game is still playing a game.  In fact, that is the most common form of gamer.

It is gravely insulting to hear, repeatedly, that the games we develop somehow do not count as real games.  Just because a game does not involve a console and game controller, and shooting people on screen, does not make it any less of a game.  Lots of people play Call of Duty, but ridiculous numbers of people also play Candy Crush.  I do not like to segment people into hard-core/mid-core/casual/social/live/whatever gamers; they are all gamers.  Please enjoy Pretty Good MahJongg and Demolish! Pairs, but do not tell me that you are not playing a game while doing so.

Now, Candy Crush is the current flavor of the day, and that is a position it deserves.  It is a game based on a proven (addictive) mechanic, with a clear theme, nice artwork and audio to match the theme, and excellent execution of a good design.  For this effort, it currently earns more than $800,000 per day on iOS alone.  Puzzles and Dragons is reportedly earning $3.75 million per day!  By contrast, most games earn very little, and Forbes reports that the average iOS app earns only $4000 (lifetime), which is still far better than either Android or Windows Phone.  Needless to say, no proper game developer can make a living on an “average” iOS app.

Point 3:  Just because some games are reporting unbelievable revenue figures, it does not mean that the game industry, as a whole, is healthy.

Right now, more than ever before, we are seeing a huge influx of games on the market.  Lower barriers to entry have created a glut of content, much of it not very good, and this makes “discoverability” a serious problem.  Essentially every programmer I have ever met in my career has created a game at some point, usually while learning.  The difference, now, is that a much larger percentage (and total number) are taking these experiments and school projects and publishing them, either for free or on the off chance that they might make some “beer money”, while working a different job or living with their parents.

The result of all of this is that they are essentially peeing in the pool in which professional game developers have to swim.  Small (or “indie”, if you prefer) developers, in particular, have to deal with a ceiling of games with large development teams and huge marketing budgets, and a floor muddied by hundred of thousands of mediocre games (at best) that only serve to make our games harder to find and exposure much more difficult.  The current situation is unsustainable in the long run.

To be clear, I am very frustrated, but I am not about to “pull a Phil Fish“.  However, if our products do not find an audience to achieve significantly more than average sales, we will not be able to stay actively in business.  Sure we might be able to produce some games in our spare time while writing boring accounting software or designing web sites, but that would be barely acceptable after two decades as a full-time game developer.

To end on a positive note, however…  I overhead a conversation among some of the young people I know, and they were complaining about the IAP (in-app-purchases) in Plants vs Zombies 2, saying that they would much rather just pay for the game than being constantly bombarded with IAP (and not insisting that they were not gamers :) ), so perhaps the pendulum is starting to swing back, away from “free-to-play”.

 

TableTop Day 2013 Wrapup

Everybody (hosts and guests) had a great time.

[Note that house rules dictate that winner (or new guest) chooses next game.]

… and now we are even better equipped for our next Game Night!

TableTop Day 2013

Digital Gamecraft supports TableTop Day.

TableTop DayThis Saturday, March 30, 2013, is International TableTop Day, a day devoted to playing games.  It was created by Geek & Sundry as an extension of their TableTop web series, in which Wil Wheaton (*) introduces viewers to various board games and, of course, the fun to be had by playing.

On March 30th, 2013, we ask you to go to your friendly local game store, neighborhood coffee shop, school auditorium, community center, or host a game day at your home and play more games.

This is a cause that Digital Gamecraft supports 100%.  This date corresponds to our (semi-)regular Saturday game night here at the office/home, so we will be hosting an International TableTop Day party, just a little larger than our usual gathering.  If you are in the East Lansing [Michigan USA] area and would be interesting in attending, email me (seelhoff@sophsoft.com) for an invitation.

TableTop Day 2013

Small sampling of TableTop and traditional games available.

We will have several of the games featured on TableTop in the past, including Ticket to Ride [Europe], Settlers of Catan, Munchkin, Fluxx (we hope!), Dixit, and (new arrival) Zombie Dice, as well as honorary member, Cards Against Humanity, which we discovered through a Wil Wheaton tweet, plus other favorites such as Bohnanza, Apples to Apples, and many more.

(*) When I met Wil Wheaton (once), back when we were both a bit younger, we talked for quite a while about video games (in particular, ST:TNG, “A Final Unity, on which I was Senior Software Engineer) and I never realized his love for table games, nor he mine, obviously.  [Look for a separate blog entry in the future.]

Wherever you are, please take the time this Saturday to play games, in person.

International TableTop Day 2013

Lack of Ideas? Really?

Ideas are easy.  Execution really matters.

I somewhat regularly read about “game designers” who are lacking ideas, usually via posts from the individuals themselves seeking good ideas for a game (from others).  Mind you, I cannot lay claim to being the best game designer on the planet, but I can certainly tell you that anyone who says that they have no game ideas is definitely not a game designer.

The truth of the matter is that any real game designer always has too many ideas to be able to execute all of them, or even a significant percentage.  If you do not have this problem, you best not fancy yourself a designer at all; instead, take a job with a game company where you can develop the ideas of somebody else, and maybe add a little design input every once in a while.

Here are a few characteristics of pseudo-designers that I have encountered over the many years I have been in this business:

  • they think that “Quake, only with bigger guns” is an interesting idea;
  • they focus on a single design idea to the exclusion of other approaches;
  • they believe that their one idea is so valuable that others are just waiting to “steal” it;
  • they think that an idea is somehow the same as a game design; and
  • they have no idea how much effort is actually involved in building a game.

Whenever I hear one of these stories now, I just have to shake my head and sigh.  Granted, early in my professional career, I was more likely to be swayed by somebody with a grand idea and (at least) a partial game design but, of course, the conversation usually ended with “you create my game and I will split the profits with you, 50/50.”  Even when groups are formed to pursue a particular game design, unless they are properly funded, it almost always ends in failure.

I can hardly believe that people will claim they are a “good game designer”, but they cannot come up with a good idea to turn into a game design.  When I worked at Quest Software, and we were wrapping up The Legend of Blacksilver (Apple II version, circa 1989), our entire development staff (of 4!) sat down at a local Burger King and brainstormed at least four game ideas to consider before the end of a fast food lunch; I still remember one of the ideas that was not chosen to pursue.  Given that, I am astonished when somebody thinks that my company would bother to take their basic game idea, when we have a backlog of our own designs yet to be done, and could easily devise more when/if necessary.

When I first heard about the One Game A Month challenge, I was intrigued at the idea of trying to start clearing out the backlog of those designs (full and partial) we have wanted to create.  Although I am not officially participating, primarily because after 30+ years, my game development goals are not congruent with the bulk of the “indie scene”, I realized that the way to get this done was to actually think less about game design, and focus on execution: actually getting the projects completed.

Execution is always the most important part of game development, because “wouldn’t it be cool if…” is always much easier to say than to do.  Somebody has to program, somebody has to create artwork (likewise, sounds, music, levels, documentation, etc.), and it all needs to be put together and, most of all, finished.  It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all (i.e., more than 90% of) games are never actually completed.

To give you some numbers on the extent of the Digital Gamecraft backlog, I spent an hour or so simply writing down the names of projects for which some design work had been done, including games that had been partially designed and researched, games which had fully documented designs, and several products in various stages of development.  I stopped when I reached 32 projects, though there are certainly more.

The reason that 32 was a good place to stop was that I wanted to prioritize them using a simple binary selection process (a bracket system, if you will), knowing that all of the higher priority projects would spring immediately to mind.  I went through the pairs of projects to generate a rough priority list, and then I manually tweaked the development and release order to create some variety in our lineup (i.e., not producing two games within the same genre back-to-back).  Now I have a list of projects that, even if we could finish one per month, would take us almost until 2016, and that does not even include any of the four AAA games we pitched at E3 (and CGDC) back in 1997.

Our current project list, as it currently stands, contains 30 games, in 6 different genres, spanning approximately one dozen platforms, plus a productivity application and an information web site.  If we can accomplish even half of that in the next 5 years, I will probably be extremely pleased (or, possibly, cloned ;) ).

However, if your problem is with finding ideas, rather than actual execution of game designs, then it may be time to give up the concept of being a game designer.